When new president, Jeffrey Webb ended his acceptance speech on 23 May, 2012 at the five-star Boscolo Hotel in Budapest, Hungary, football officials from the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, otherwise known as CONCACAF, rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
There was probably no more goodwill in the room than on the Ides of March in 44BC when the late Roman Emperor Julius Caesar met his senators.
“The credibility of CONCACAF is back,” said FIFA President Sepp Blatter, beaming like a full moon.
It was a double-edged compliment from the 76-year-old Blatter, whose 14-year tenure has been punctuated with bizarre statements—he once suggested that racism on the pitch could be solved with a handshake at the final whistle— mismanagement, corruption and financial scandals.
No one, not even the FIFA vice-presidents, has any idea as to the salary that the President earns. In football’s hallways, secrecy is a prized asset. And of late the veil that keeps it intact at the CONCACAF end has not been as secure as Blatter would like.
The election of Webb is meant to ensure that the damage is limited in a region still unsettled after the sudden end to the chaotic stewardship of its previous boss, Trinidad and Tobago’s own Jack Warner. Lacking credentials as a football administrator and not perceived as a natural leader, the articulate 47-year-old banker from the Cayman Islands is already being measured up by his troops.
Despite 21 years at the helm of the Cayman Islands Football Association, the unassuming Webb remains largely an unknown commodity within the Caribbean. But during a nine-year stint as Deputy Chairman of FIFA’s Audit Committee, he made important friends.
Twenty-five of CONCACAF’s 35-member associations come from the Caribbean; so Blatter couldn’t expect to recruit a long-term leader from the continent. And, as the Confederation tried to recover from last year’s events, word spread around the islands that Webb was the man behind whom they should throw their support.
At the time, CFU officials were making regular appearances before FIFA investigators and survival was all that mattered.
But the Mohammed Bin Hammam bribery affair that spawned that disquiet is now history and, on May 22, Antigua and Barbuda FA General Secretary Gordon Derrick was voted in as the new CFU president with support from 16 islands.
Derrick, who escaped with a reprimand and a fine for his role in last year’s scandal, will have the electoral support he needs to claim the CONCACAF’s top post if he can increase his support to 18 full associations. Blatter’s backing would be worthless to Webb then.
A brash 43-year-old bank director, Derrick’s grip over the region does not come close to the vice-like hold enjoyed by Warner. The smaller islands have wiped their more illustrious neighbours from the CFU executive posts and Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Suriname, Guyana, Barbados, Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago are now unrepresented.
But the knee-jerk response to Warner’s perceived oppression could prove a strategically poor move. There is already word of the bigger Caribbean nations banding together to create interest groups.
On the continent, the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States—who boast of the region’s best international and domestic teams—are known to be displeased by the prospect of another spell under the thumb of a Caribbean boss.
So that there is a chance, however remote, that CONCACAF might splinter into two or three pieces, even if only unofficially at first.
And the internal politics is only one of Webb’s problems.
“You are sitting on a time bomb,” Cuba football president Luis Hernandez told him. “In all our countries, corruption and shady use of resources has a clear name: robbery and theft… There are robbers with guns and there are robbers with white collars—and I don’t want us to be represented by a thief with a white collar in FIFA.”
Hernandez was a rare absentee when, on 10 May 2011, ex-Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Bin Hammam landed in Trinidad and Caribbean Football Union (CFU) officials lined up to collect brown envelopes stuffed with US$40,000 from the ambitious Qatari, who had an eye on Blatter’s throne.
The fallout from the FIFA presidential bribery scandal led to Bin Hammam’s expulsion and a hasty resignation from would-be king maker, Warner. But the bloodletting is far from over.
There might have been a shiver when United States attorney John Collins, CONCACAF’s legal counsel, congratulated Webb at his coronation in Budapest. In the past 12 months, Collins, who serves on two FIFA boards, has stuck it to two CONCACAF Presidents and a General Secretary.
And that is just how he treats his friends.
During Warner’s time, a Caribbean football official who stepped out of line would invariably hear that Collins had landed at the airport. Collins was known simply as Warner’s hatchet man and anyone whom he visited was without a portfolio went he left.
But last May, Collins, instructed by General Secretary and compatriot Chuck Blazer, turned his dubious talents on Warner after Blazer, surprisingly, decided to act on Bin Hammam’s Caribbean mission.
Barbadian Lisle Austin replaced Warner at the helm of CONCACAF and immediately ordered a forensic audit into Blazer. Collins, bizarrely, took the General Secretary’s side against the President and within five days Austin was finished—Austin subsequently filed for wrongful dismissal and his case is before the Bahamas High Court.
If Webb is counting on support from Collins, he will need to remember this little act of gratitude. Just as Blazer appeared in the clear, Collins used the same audit route that Austin had been denied to help blindside his former co-conspirator.
CONCACAF officials expressed dismay that Blazer had been paying himself a hefty “secret” commission on marketing and television deals. But a leaked report from investigative journalist Andrew Jennings showed that Blazer’s fee appeared on the Federation’s annual reports from as far back as 1994.
Similarly, news that Warner owned the João Havelange Centre of Excellence in Trinidad ought not to have surprised anyone at FIFA; after all, the governing body had placed two GOAL projects there and paid rent for a development office at the same venue.
In CONCACAF, there is smoke and mirrors everywhere and little is as it appears.
Football fans scarred by the free-for-all that characterised Warner’s term of office might have smiled as Webb declared: “What has our focus been? Politics and economics; let us focus on our game… We must move the clouds and allow the sunshine in.”
In Budapest, behind the masks of the smiles you sensed that there were sneers.
“We should take the focus away from politics and economics?” one CONCACAF insider asked Wired868 rhetorically. “What nonsense! Football is politics and economics.”
The commonest interpretation of Caesar’s famous last words: “Et tu, Brute” is that they constituted a yelp of surprise at betrayal from an old friend.
Other scholars believed it was a threat and CONCACAF officials might find their interpretation to be relevant: “Your turn next, Brutus.”